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U.S., China's road from bitter foes to wary rivals

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN
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Biden goes to China

Editor's note: "Jaime's China" is a weekly column about Chinese society and politics. Jaime FlorCruz has lived and worked in China since 1971. He studied Chinese history at Peking University (1977-81) and served as TIME Magazine's Beijing correspondent and bureau chief (1982-2000).

Beijing, China (CNN) -- As we watch U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hold talks with his Chinese hosts this week, it is apt to look back at the precarious state of China-U.S. relations four decades ago and how far they have come along.

Forty years ago, Henry Kissinger secretly visited Beijing and pulled off the improbable: the first direct contact between senior Chinese and American officials in over 20 years.

"It was an extremely bold move," says Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington. "It was a visit that set the stage for re-ordering of global politics in a grand scale."

Kissinger's sortie into China was a mix of ruse and suspense. While in Pakistan on a trip to Asia, Kissinger feigned acute illness. He was rushed away ostensibly for treatment and rest. Surreptitiously, he and his three aides took a Pakistani plane destined for Communist China.

His mission: to exchange views with the Chinese and lay the groundwork for U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit.

America's strategy was to persuade the Chinese to influence their North Vietnamese allies to agree to an "honorable peace" that would allow the United States to withdraw from Vietnam with dignity. It also wished to bring China closer so the United States could focus on coping with the threat of the Soviet Union.

China, for its part, also wished to neutralize the Soviet threat -- and to break out of its diplomatic isolation by coaxing the United States to recognize the People's Republic of China (PRC) instead of Taiwan as the sole legitimate representative of China.

The relationship is much stronger than ever before
--Gary Locke, new U.S. ambassador to China
  • China
  • Beijing
  • United States

Could the two bitter foes agree to a rapprochement?

Arriving in Beijing in July 1971, Kissinger, then Nixon's national security adviser, was escorted straight into the Diaoyutai State Guest House, where he spent several hours talking behind closed doors with Mao's top emissary, Premier Zhou Enlai.

Remarkably, the two former foes broke the ice.

The visit laid the groundwork for Nixon's visit to China in 1972 -- the week that changed the world and later the establishment of China-U.S. diplomatic relations.

Today, four decades later, historians and political analysts see a tectonic shift in thinking.

Almost everything has changed.

When Kissinger went to China in 1971, he started the first ever direct talks with top Chinese officials since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

Now, the two sides hold more than 60 formal government-to-government dialogues every year, including Biden's visit this week.

"Literally millions and millions of our citizens now spend time in each other's country," says Lieberthal. "It's incomparable then and now in terms of interaction."

To be sure, some things have not changed.

"China and the U.S. differ in ideology, history, culture, tradition and level of development," notes Dai Bingguo, a top Chinese cabinet member who oversees security and diplomatic affairs. "It's impossible not to have differences."

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, trade, Tibet and human rights remain perennial issues that divide the two countries.

Leading U.S. diplomacy to deal with such issues is Gary Locke, a third-generation Chinese-American who until recently served as U.S. commerce secretary. He arrived in Beijing last week as the 10th U.S. ambassador to China since the two countries normalized relations in 1979.

"The relationship is much stronger than ever before," Locke told me when asked how much has changed since 1971. "So much of what Americans use in their daily lives is produced in China. China also has enormous needs, and American companies are helping provide some of those solutions. It has grown much stronger and closer since Henry Kissinger was here."

Besides, the Cold War is over, and the Soviet Union has collapsed. China and the United States are no longer "cards" for each other to play. Instead, they are two global powers -- some say rivals -- eyeing each other warily but sharing common challenges.

"We are dealing with issues, coping with the consequences of globalization, of climate change, financial crises, changing military balances, all kinds of issues," Lieberthal noted. "It's a fundamental change in dimensions on how we deal with each other."

The Chinese lionize Kissinger as a master strategist, visionary and a "lao pengyou" (old friend). Last month, over 100 Chinese diplomats, academics and journalists gathered in Diaoyutai Guest House to celebrate Kissinger's now-historic visit.

"No matter how the international situation changed or what kind of difficulties Sino-U.S. relations encountered in the past 40 years, Dr. Kissinger always linked U.S. national interest with cooperation with China," Dai told the gathering.

Recalling his own visit, Kissinger, now 88, revealed that his overriding concern during the visit was not the possibility of failure but something more personal.

"For both countries a great deal depended on the success of the visit," he told the gathering at Diaoyutai. "But I had a special problem, which was the opposite of any other visitor's problem. Most visitors were very eager to meet Chairman Mao. I was terrified that I might meet Chairman Mao because I knew that President Nixon wanted to be the first American to meet Chairman Mao."

Much to his relief, Mao did not ask to meet Kissinger.

Eight months later, Nixon got his wish.